Monday, August 4, 2014
The Connectivity of Allison Joseph's My Father's Kites
For a minute, I want to trace out the ways that Allison Joseph's volume my father's kites (2010) connects to several other poems, volumes of poetry, autobiographies, and patterns in African American literature and culture. What I'm providing is not exhaustive, but suggestive. Unless we take the steps to point out how individual volumes link to multiple other texts and writers, we'll under-appreciate the connectivity of a single book.
When I first encountered the title of Joseph's book, I immediately thought of Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" where he writes about his father. When I began reading the poems, I thought of Langston Hughes's poem "Cross" where he mentions that "My old man's a white old man / And my old mother's black. / If ever I cursed my white old man / I take my curses back." There's also Houston Baker's "No Matter Where You Travel, You Still be Black," where he writes "Your mama raised you proper, / Your daddy gave you pain, / You understand Beethoven, /But you still love 'Trane."
Actually Baker's memoir writings correspond to Joseph's volume, as Baker frequently writes about his father. Richard Wright, in his autobiography Black Boy (1945), wrote about his strained relationship with his father. In his autobiography, Malcolm X wrote admiringly of his father, and Barack Obama displays a kind of father-yearning in his autobiography Dreams From My Father. Obama regularly mentions how an absent father affected him. In fact, the notion of fathers -- absent and present -- are central to the discourse concerning Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" Initiative. Now whenever I think of the fathers in those works, I'm inclined to consider the father in Joseph's volume.
In his blog entries, Ta-Nehisi Coates regularly writes about his father, and his memoir The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood (2008) also presents extended treatments of his father. He now writes admiringly of his father, but Coates occasionally reminds readers how difficult it was at times growing up with a stern black dad.
A quick glance at fiction leads us to Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle (1996), where the protagonist constantly mentions his problematic father, and in Colson Whitehead's Sag Harbor (2009) the main character expounds on his relationship with his father. Now that I think of it there's a touching father-daughter scene in Whitehead's first novel The Intuitionist (1999), where the father is teaching his daughter to read. Those references to fathers came to mind as I've read and re-read Joseph's book over the last few years.
When and if you search the web for "poems about fathers," you'll usually only see Hayden's poem "Those Winter Sundays" as the lone black representative. But Joseph's book and the various other related works reveal that black writers have produced substantial work about their fathers.
Joseph's reflections on the death and funeral preparations for her father anticipates Kevin Young's Book of Hours (2014), where he too writes about the loss of his father and the funeral. Both Joseph and Young discuss learning more about their fathers while preparing their belongings. There's also Tony Medina's My Old Man Was Always On The Lam (2010), who, like Joseph and Young, concentrates on reflections of his father.
That Joseph's volume presents an extensive focus on a black man places her in the company of several other books of poetry featuring black men such as Adrian Matejka's book on Jack Johnson The Big Smoke (2013), Rita Dove's Sonata Mulattica (2009), Frank X. Walker's Buffalo Dance (2004) and When Winter Come (2008), and Jess's Leadbelly (2005). And then, few poets have written as many tributes to black men than Amiri Baraka, who was fond of writing about jazz artists like Coltrane, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, and literally dozens of others.
The tradition of poets writing about black men goes way back though. Consider Sterling Brown's "Strong Men" or Helene Johnson's "Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem" or the many, many Malcolm X poems out there, including works by Larry Neal, Margaret Walker, and Etheridge Knight. Joseph has now contributed to and extended those traditions of writing about black men, displaying the possibility of showcasing an extensive treatment of father-figure in African American verse.
Joseph's book includes 34 sonnets on the common topic of her father, thus her book connects to several other recent volumes that contain extended sonnet sequences, including works by Elizabeth Alexander, Nikky Finney, Vievee Francis, Tyehimba Jess, A. Van Jordan, John Murillo, Marilyn Nelson, Patricia Smith, and Natasha Trethewey.
Joseph is a prolific poet, producing several works over the years. What moved me with my father's kites, though, was observing her working meticulously through this single topic in so many poems. I viewed what she was doing as a concentrated topic project, and I've been fascinated studying various other writers doubling down on a single topic.
Alexander and then Young produced concentrated topic projects on the Amistad rebellion and aftermath. I've followed comic strip writers like Aaron McGruder and Darrin Bell and editorial cartoonist Keith Knight spend considerable energies concentrating on select topics. Journalist Trymaine Lee took that concentrated approach with his many writings on Trayvon Martin, and so did Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Joseph has a poem entitled "Thirty Lines about the Fro," which I enjoy, and that poem's title led me to view her 34 sonnets as her 476 lines about her father. And, here's the thing, we can, on the one hand, view her 476 lines as a tribute, but not in some only flowery positive way. No, you get the sense that Joseph's dad was, on occasional, a difficult man, which consequently, would make him an important artistic muse.
Difficult and bad man figures are quite pronounced in African American literary history and culture. John de Conqueror, Stagolee, and Shine are such looming and memorable folk heroes in large part because they were bad men, because they were difficult. The notion of complex, unruly, rebellious, mysterious, out-spoken black men gave writers much to consider. Such was the case for Joseph.
Ok, I've likely surpassed my minute of tracing the connectivity of Joseph's my father's kites.
• A Notebook on Book History
• Allison Joseph